Nancy Blattner has been president of Caldwell University since 2009. Under her leadership, the traditional undergraduate enrollment of Caldwell has grown nearly 30 percent while the resident population on campus has climbed more than 40 percent.
Not only has Blattner created “Caldwell Day,” a day on which all students, faculty and staff may devote their traditionally academic day to community service, but she has also increased the universitywide focus on behavioral and mental health research and educational programs.
This year in particular, Blattner led the institution in its efforts to switch its status from a college to a university, and welcomed its largest freshman class to date.
With over three decades of experience in Catholic and public higher education, Blattner serves on the board for many organizations: the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities; the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities Tax Policy Committee; the NCAA Committee on Women in Athletics; the Development Committee for the Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi; the Council of Fellows for the American Council on Education; and as the chair of the Presidents’ Council of the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference.
Please enjoy this Q&A with Nancy Blattner, one of NJBIZ’s 2014 Best 50 Women in Business.
NJBIZ: What do you love most about being the president of Caldwell University?
Nancy Blattner: What I most love about my position is interacting with students and championing their ability to receive a college education. I view this as paying it forward, since people in the past championed me when I needed guidance and mentoring as I went to college, embarked upon a career as a professor in higher education and as I ultimately made the leap into university administration.
NJBIZ: Where have you worked previously, and why did you choose to leave?
NB: After graduating from the university at the age of 20 in 1978, I continued my education, working as a teaching assistant in the Department of English at Southeast Missouri State University. From there, I worked as an adjunct for seven years until I was hired full time with a joint appointment as an instructor in the Department of English and as the Director of the Writing Assessment program at Southeast. After receiving tenure and achieving the rank of full professor, I left Southeast in 2002 when I received a national fellowship from the American Council on Education (in Washington, D.C.) to work with and be mentored by a university president for the 2002-2003 academic year. This fellowship required me to move away from my home in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, for the first time (at age 44).
I chose to be mentored by Dr. Patricia Cormier at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia — my first time to be mentored by a female — so that I could study female leadership, which, I believed then and still believe now, differs somewhat from male leadership/mentoring. While at Longwood, the position of associate provost opened up late in the academic year, and I was asked to stay. I took a leave of absence from Southeast Missouri State University and stayed at Longwood for the 2003-2004 academic year. In summer 2004, I was appointed as the Vice President and Dean for Academic Affairs at Fontbonne University in St. Louis, Missouri, a desirable move since my husband and I had been in a commuting marriage of more than 750 miles for the previous two years. My appointment at Fontbonne University reduced our commute to 110 miles. I lived in St. Louis during the week and commuted to our home in Cape Girardeau on the weekends for the five years I was in this position. In July 2009, I assumed the presidency of Caldwell University (then Caldwell College), where I am currently working.
NJBIZ: What was your focus in school?
NB: I received my B.S. in Secondary Education/English and my M.A. in English from Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. After marrying and starting a family (and while working a full-time position at the university), I commuted to Southern Illinois University-Carbondale to obtain my Ph.D. in educational psychology.
NJBIZ: What was the most important thing you learned during your education?
NB: I learned strong communication and interpersonal skills. I am comfortable ‘working a crowd’ or addressing a large group, and while I don’t really enjoy writing, I am a competent writer. These skills are absolutely critical in today’s workplace.
NJBIZ: What advice would you give to young working women?
NB: Despite the literature which encourages women to ‘go for it all,’ I would caution young women that ‘leaning in’ comes with a price. It is virtually impossible to ascend the career ladder, be married and have children, and take care of oneself. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything accomplished without feeling that one is missing out on the living of life.
The other piece of advice is simply that you must find a career that feeds your passion. Frederick Buechner once stated: ‘The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.’ Because I feel that ‘deep gladness,’ I know I have been called to be president of Caldwell University; the ‘fit’ is there.
NJBIZ: What were the attitudes toward women in your industry when you first started?
NB: I remember going into a meeting when my son, who is now 35, was about 8 or 9 years old. He had accompanied me after school and was sitting in the hall outside the meeting room. When the meeting ended, he said, ‘Mommy, there were 23 people in that meeting.’ I was puzzled and said, ‘Okay, so?’ And he replied, ‘You were the only female.’ That struck me for two reasons: First, because my son noticed this, and secondly because this was so normal in those days in that setting that I didn’t think twice about it!
I also remember when I received my first acceptance to make a presentation at a national conference. One of my male colleagues asked if there was a special submission process for adjuncts. I still remember the sting of that comment (and there was only one process — for all).
NJBIZ: How have attitudes changed since?
NB: Women are certainly more prominent in positions of authority in higher education, although nationally, the latest data indicates that only 26 percent of university/college presidents are women. The increase has been very slow in the past few decades, despite the pipelines that have been developed to promote qualified women and minorities into these positions.
I just returned from a tax policy meeting in Washington, D.C., where I was one of only two women in a room filled with presidents. So, things have not changed as much as they might have or should have in the intervening years.
NJBIZ: What has been your worst experience as a woman at work?
NB: As president, I was interviewing construction firms to do a buildout of a space that I had identified on campus for repurposing. The three finalists each brought teams to campus to meet with me, my CFO and my facilities foreman, both of whom are men. The first two teams were comprised of two and three men, respectively. I was the lone female in the room. Still, the atmosphere was respectful, and I was able to ask my questions about the project.
The third team arrived with six members, two of whom were women. I was elated that I would not be the only female and particularly noted that one of the two owners was one of the females. We had moved into a classroom for more space for the presentation, and the firm’s architect stood up to make his presentation and positioned himself literally inches in front of me with his back to me so that my view was — how can I say this delicately … of his back pants pocket.
I just allowed his presentation to go on, wondering how far we would get before someone recognized that he was disrespecting the president of the institution. Finally, one of his male colleagues suggested he position himself differently. After he finished speaking, I asked why his design was based on bolting the structure to be built to an exterior wall instead of using a mezzanine approach. He turned to me and said, ‘Anyone who knows anything about this type of construction would never suggest using a mezzanine structure.’ I then told him that the previous two firms had suggested just such an approach, given that using the outer wall could compromise a water line that ran just alongside.
We did not hire the third firm. The female co-owner called me the next week to apologize and said she was mortified about the architect’s behavior, but she didn’t do anything to correct it during the meeting. She said she hoped we would consider her firm in the future. I told her that I hoped she had the courage to replace the architect.
NJBIZ: What has been your best professional experience?
NB: Perhaps my best experience was my inauguration as president of Caldwell University in November 2009. This was a time when family and friends from all of my previous positions and stages of my life gathered with my new community of faculty, staff and students at Caldwell to celebrate a milestone in the institution’s life (I was the first lay president at Caldwell) and in my own life. There is a picture taken of the moment when I was announced on stage as the president of Caldwell, and my husband, who is standing behind me, is applauding while a tear runs down his face. That picture captures so many emotions for me.
NJBIZ: What mistakes do women often make at the workplace?
NB: The biggest mistake that all leaders make, including women, is that they too often are afraid to admit to having made a mistake. I think women actually fear doing this more than men, because they have more fear about people’s opinions and concern about holding on to their positions. I just spoke to a group of student leaders and told them that leaders are human and will make mistakes. Everyone knows this. Admit it, correct the mistake if at all possible and move on, learning from the mistake.
NJBIZ: What would you say are the top five things that successful women always do well?
NJBIZ: What is keeping women from holding or gaining more leadership positions?
NB: Many things hinder women’s rise to leadership positions, but perhaps the one that has a greater impact than other factors is their lack of networking. When a position opens, people contact those they know, those with whom they have worked and those with whom they feel comfortable. Since the majority of people in leadership positions are men, it is normal for them to make the call to encourage one of their male colleagues to apply for the position.
NJBIZ: What are some steps we need to take today in order to continue narrowing the gender gap?
NB: As a female in a leadership role, I believe it is necessary for me to mentor other females, whether they are students or staff. I also believe it is important to provide professional development and leadership training experiences for females.
We should also encourage women to continue their educations — whether that is obtaining their bachelor’s degrees or completing a graduate or professional degree. Finally, women need to be taught that it is absolutely acceptable to promote themselves and to bargain for their salaries, for better working conditions and for all of the things that in the past we may have been too timid to do or simply uninformed about how to do so.
NJBIZ: What is one thing younger women still need to remember about the gender gap today as it becomes less obvious?
NB: Women have to make their own best case: For pay that is tantamount to what a male makes for the same or a similar position, for a mentor that can guide them and introduce them to the network that exists within their line of business and for promotions that are deserved because of work that has been performed.
NJBIZ: Break up your average 24-hour weekday into a pie chart — what percentage do you devote to work?
NB: On an average day, it ranges between 50 and 60 percent — 7 days per week.
NJBIZ: What is the best advice you can give regarding work/life balance?
NB: It is important to take care of yourself or to have someone in your life (like my husband) who helps to take care of you. Despite knowing this, I feel I do this fairly poorly.
NJBIZ: How do you inspire and motivate your team?
NB: When I became president, I set three ‘rules’ by which my cabinet operates. I call them the three ‘C’s’: civility, confidentiality and candor. All discussions must be candid but conducted in a civil manner. This allows for people to disagree — sometimes strongly — but the disagreement is with the issue, not the person speaking. And all of this must be done in a secure place where confidentiality will be strictly agreed upon by all.
NJBIZ: What’s one thing about you that most of your co-workers would be surprised to hear?
NB: I think they would be surprised to hear that I am a people pleaser. Making others happy and caring about what people think are very much part of my DNA. This might be a surprise since, oftentimes as a university president, I have to make very tough decisions that don’t please some constituency or other on campus. Those are personally tough times for me.
NJBIZ: What are your hobbies and interests outside of work?
NB: I love to read and travel, as well as spend time with my family. My husband and I have been blessed to travel to dozens of countries around the world, and we have many more on our bucket list. Now as our children are adults, we are including them on some of these trips, which allows me to combine all of my favorite leisure activities — traveling while spending time with family and bringing along a great book to read.
NJBIZ: Do aspects of your job carry into your personal interests and hobbies?
NB: My husband has always said that it’s a good thing I like to read and am a fast reader, because I literally read dozens, if not hundreds, of pages daily for my current job. Travel also at times combines business and pleasure when I, for example, take a group of students on a study abroad trip to Rome or lead a service trip to the jungles of Belize. Both of these are opportunities afforded to me as the president of Caldwell University, fit the mission of our institution and fit nicely with my personal interest of travel and of volunteering to help others.
NJBIZ: Is there anything more you’d like our readers to know about you?
NB: I was an only child born late in life to parents who had only eighth-grade educations. The value of an education, the necessity of hard work and the virtue of strong values were gifts that my parents gave me despite their lack of an education. Fortunately, I was mentored throughout my career — but always by men, until 2002 when I received the national ACE Fellowship. As a woman who has arguably broken through the glass ceiling — while making mistakes and learning as I traversed 36 years in higher education — I am committed to helping others, both women and men, who wish to build a career in higher education. By influencing the lives of today’s students, we have the chance to change the world.
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